The Greatest Superhero Films of All Time

2012 is the year of the Superhero. With the Avengers due out this Friday and Batman and Spider-Man being released a couple of months later, 2012 contains probably the three most highly anticipated superhero films of this young decade. It seems like today the cinema belongs to the men in tights but it wasn’t long ago that superhero films were a rarity. The genre has been sort of revolutionized over the recent years and has become one of Hollywood’s biggest commodities. So before we all pay our 7 dollars to see the Bat, some Avengers, and a Spider, it is time to look back at the films that help pave the way for a genre that has become as “super” as the characters that inhabit it.

10. Iron Man (2008)

Robert Downey Jr. is to Tony Stark what Health Ledger was to the Joker. He is iconic in the role and in turn helps to make Iron Man more than just your run of the mill origin story. Iron Man combines the fun of a comic with the realism of a film and works as an exhilarating introduction to one of Marvel’s cooler superheroes. Iron Man (the movie) has brought its main character into the fray of American pop culture as well as also being a strong film centered on the charisma and bravery of Tony Stark.

9. Spider-Man (2002)

Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man sort of defined what a Marvel film should be. Instead of trying to reinvent the superhero for the screen, Raimi reinvented the screen for the superhero. What ended up on screen was literally a “comic book movie”. A movie the reveled in the way that comics told stories with the visual grandeur of a motion picture. Raimi not only helped to get our favorite web slinger off the ground but also numerous other mask men who, until then, were never given a chance.

8. X2: X-Men United (2003)

Bryan Singer may have really miffed on the whole Superman thing but his sequel to the excellent X-Men is the best team superhero (based on a comic) film I have ever seen. Dark, ominous, and smart; X2 has more style and punch than it’s predecessor. This may be because Singer really didn’t have to worry about introducing all of the characters and instead could focus more on the story and feel of the X-Men universe. X2 should have been the set up for more dark and edgy X-Men films but instead Brett Ratner got a hold of it and screwed it all up. Even though it wasn’t a stepping-stone to something bigger, X2 has the honor of being the best X-Men film of all-time.

7. Batman Begins (2005)

Chris Nolan has to be known as the savior of the Batman film. His reboot was able to not only reanimate a long dead Batman (thanks to Joel) but was also able to polish the character into a more realistic and loyal version of himself. Batman Begins is a beautiful adaptation of America’s darkest hero and the rebirth of a legend. Purely an origin story, Batman Begins is very similar to Frank Miller’s classic comic, Batman Year One. Even with that said Begins is it’s own retelling of the Bat as it introduces characters and places that are new and old. Begins is a triumphant new chapter to one of the cinema’s most beloved heroes.

6. Chronicle (2012)

To be honest, Chronicle should never have been as good as it was. It was sort of a trend film, blending in the popular found footage genre with the extremely popular superhero movie. What separates Chronicle from what it should have been is its focus on the people doing the filming and not the powers on display. Chronicle is a fascinating exercise in strong character development. The strong connection that the movie establishes with characters and the audience helps to provide a powerful and emotionally devastating experience. If you love both the found footage and superhero genres, then there is no reason you won’t love this film. It exploits the very best of the two genres while also telling the tragic story of a boy pushed too far.

5. Superman (1978)

I don’t really like including this film on the list because it knocked out some of my more personal favorite superhero films (Thor, X-Men) but it defiantly belongs here. Superman was the birth of the superhero film. It basically laid out a blueprint for all the superhero films that followed it. Yea it has some plot holes and yes it isn’t as serious as it should have been but the original Superman’s influence still reaches to today. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t just add it on this list for some type of Citizen Kane effect, Superman works. From it’s exciting beginning to a thrilling (even though implausible) conclusion, the Man of Steel is well represented. Superman might not be your go to superhero film but its undeniable that it’s DNA has infused itself with the genre in a way that no other film has. If there ever was a birth to the superhero genre, this was it.

4. Batman/Batman Returns (1989/1992)

I really can’t pick between which of these films should be higher than the other. I love the original Batman because it helped to move the superhero genre forward. It was dark, gritty, and the first real Batman film. Not only that but it is a pretty good film too with its beautiful art direction and excellent casting. But with that you also have Batman Returns, which went into a totally different direction. If Batman was Burton containing himself then Returns is Burton full blown. Returns is Burton’s Batman and a really cool reimaging of Gotham and some of its famous rogue villains. I think that when you look at both movies you see that each served a purpose. Batman was the first real case for a serious and dark superhero film. It was a movie that proved that the “real” cape crusader could exist on screen. And then you have Returns, which was the Batman film that Burton probably always intended to make. Returns may not be very faithful to its source material but I sort of forgive it for that and accept it as Burton’s own attempt to make “his” Batman story. I guess the reason why I couldn’t decide between the two is because one is a better Batman film and the other is just a better movie. But in the end I’m just glad that Burton left his fingerprint on the Batman series before Hollywood finally got a hold of it.

3. The Incredibles (2005)

Pixar can really do no wrong, so it is never surprising when they do decide to do a genre film that it turns out very well. The Incredibles is no different as an exciting love letter to the heroes of our imagination. Like most of the Pixar films, The Incredibles is very attractive to the eye. Even though it is an animated affair, The Incrediables looks like the perfect mix between HD and a Doctor Seuss book as our characters fly, run, and snowboard around. The Incrediables may be a “children’s” superhero film but honestly that may be its biggest strength. Filled with both ambition and childish wonder, The Incrediables is just a loveable tale filled with characters and costumes that used to consume our childhoods.

2. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Isn’t it crazy how we can laugh at how ridiculous a superhero is based on their costumes and powers (Thor, Green Lantern, etc….) and yet we totally accept a dude who has spider abilities? The truth is that it’s not really about the powers or the costume that makes or breaks a superhero; it’s the story. Peter Parker is so adored by so many because of his constant struggle with his new found powers and responsibilities. I don’t think any film will ever capture that struggle as well as Spider-Man 2. To be honest (I know I’m stubborn) but I really don’t ever see Marvel making a better Spider-Man movie than Spider-Man 2. It just gets Peter Parker so well. Not only do we get to see Peter save the world and be the hero we all know and love but we also get to see the true Pete, the person who has to give up almost everything for these “superpowers”. Raimi and Toby McGuire sort of built the foundation in the first film and with the second film they let the character breath. They let Peter and his story be the focal point and let his story dictate where the film was going. Instead of making the film for Spider-Man, they made it for Peter Parker, which results in one of the most loyal superhero films to date.

Even though the movie focuses on the more human aspects of Spider-Man there still is a lot of action set pieces to be had. The visual effects here look amazing as Spidey zooms around the city and battles one of his most formidable foes, Doc Ock. The train sequence is the greatest action scene of any movie on this list and probably the best of its decade. There is very few times that a movie is able to take me completely out of my head but that scene did and truly left me awed. It’s crazy how the movie is able to balance its excellent action scenes with the more quiet moments. Every character gets its due and no one is underdeveloped as we leave the theater feeling that we have seen a “complete” Spider-Man tale.  Spider-Man 2 is a true classic of the genre. It contains all things that we love about Peter Parker and all things that we love about those that dawn masks and tights.

P.S. I don’t care what any whinny kid from Facebook has to say, Toby McGuire is real Spider-Man.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight is The Godfather of the superhero genre. Not only does it do the genre justice; it also transcends it. To call it a superhero film would be denying it of its true identity. It is a more specifically a drama or maybe a political allegory or even a crime film. I don’t know what it should be classified as but it belongs a lot of places and yet it works as a single piece of art. It intertwines influences and imagination to create one of the greatest films of the past ten years. Set in a world of gray, The Dark Knight explores the questions that other Batman films where never brave enough too. Is Batman’s fight against crime an act of heroism for what is right or just some sort of misplaced anger towards things he will never be able to change? Is Batman the savior of Gotham or it’s biggest problem? And then there is the Joker who is pitch perfect. I don’t care what comics you read or what other Jokers there have been, none equal the portrayal of Health Ledger. He is a man who has accepted the ugliness of the world and made it his own. He is like a clown version of General Kurtz and he just never stops coming.

All the credit has to go to the Nolan brothers who have created a loyal and yet refreshing version of the cape crusader. Gotham has never felt more real as Batman struggles with those that are his enemies and himself. They have made the greatest (including the comics) Batman story of all time. The Dark Knight is a lot of things and they are able to balance their own themes and motives with the task of creating a single Batman story. The Dark Knight is not just a superhero film; it is a mirror of all things beyond the impact of a punch.  It is a movie about what it truly means to stand up for what you believe in or what you must believe in. It is the greatest superhero film of all time.


I love the superhero film and I cannot tell you how excited I am to see what happens this year. There is no doubt that each film will amaze and each one will add to the legacy of a genre that just won’t stop growing. What film of 2012 will be the best superhero film of the year? I don’t know but my money is on the Bat.


About Brian Rector

I am 22 years old and I go to school at Missouri State in Springfield, Missouri. I have always been an avid filmgoer and I have always wanted a place to share my views and opinions on modern film. This blog is to give reviews on new release, thoughts on other artforms such as music and books, and to discuss the happenings of the film industry. View all posts by Brian Rector

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